After decades of prolific work in many excellent films, the wonderful Max von Sydow has now, at 82, received his second Academy Award nomination, for his supporting turn in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, an adaptation of the novel of the same name. This is a decision which throws up a conundrum. Yes, it’s good to acknowledge a great performer, but to do so in a film like this, in which the best male performance comes from a 15-year-old unknown, Thomas Horn, smacks a little of sentimentality.
This is a film which surprised a few people when it turned up on the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist, but some of the harshest reviews have perhaps treated it a little unfairly. Horn plays Oskar Schell, a young boy whose father is killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001, which immediately sets it alongside a mini canon of works which have dealt with the problematic subject. Rather than focusing on the heroism of the emergency services or the experiences of those trapped first-hand in the disaster, like Oliver Stone did in World Trade Center, or on the tense preceding events, as Paul Greengrass did with United 93, Stephen Daldry’s film focuses on a family and how they are dealing with their loss, one year on.
Oskar’s father Thomas (played by Tom Hanks in flashbacks) was a good role model to his son, who has been tested (“inconclusively”, as Oskar tells us) for Asperger’s syndrome. Unable to accept his father’s death, Oskar keeps a hidden shrine to his absent parent, while his relationship with his distraught mother (Sandra Bullock) worsens. When he finds a key amongst his father’s old possessions, Oskar sets about finding a person whom he knows only as ‘Black’; the name on the key’s envelope. Naturally, he sees this as a link to his missing father. But as he quickly learns, there are a lot of people with that name in New York City.
Oskar carries a tambourine with him at all times to keep him calm, and this (along with his sometimes precocious attitude), is an example of the kind of whimsical attitude the film takes with some of its subject matter. This treatment of the material has put some viewers off, and that is understandable, but I found that the film’s occasionally irritating quirks would almost invariably fade into the background of a piece which is at times genuinely affecting.
It helps that Thomas Horn is so good as Oskar, inhabiting the character to such a degree that his performance, at times, saves the film. The character’s eccentricities – which are often hinted at as being symptoms of his possible condition, but never overtly stated as such – are made endearing in his hands, while the film’s sentimental moments (and there are a fair few) feel less calculated than perhaps they are. There is a degree of contrivance to be endured along the way, particularly with regard to Bullock’s character in the final act, and some sprinklings of cringe-worthy schmaltz, but these are minor and don’t squander the favour the film has earned.
Von Sydow plays ‘the renter’ – a stranger who rents a room in Oskar’s grandma’s house across the street. His character is mute, meaning he communicates with Oskar via snappy written notes and the words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ tattooed onto his palms. This isn’t as problematic as it sounds, or wasn’t for me, but again I can understand why some audiences have taken against it. His performance, like much of the supporting cast (which also includes John Goodman and Viola Davis), is strong.
Perhaps if this was not a ‘9/11 film’ it would not have attracted quite the level of backlash that it has. Then again, maybe it would have. Films which aim to move, and which play the sentiment card overtly, are often divisive. At times, we all feel manipulated by them. I knew after I came out of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I had been manipulated, but I didn’t feel it mattered because the film told a story about a grieving family which had weight, which was technically very adept, which had strong performances and a touching score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s fair to say that the story teaches us almost nothing about the attacks other than that they caused grief, which we all know already, so perhaps it’s better to think of it as a film about grief, rather than 9/11, however overt the context may be.